HC Deb 22 April 1913 vol 52 cc264-6

I looked up the expenditure of this country fifty years ago. I think it was rather a good period to take; in many respects the conditions were analogous. They are both years that came after the close of a great war in which we were engaged. We were then after the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny—wars in which, in many respects, the military equipment had been found wanting, and found wanting in almost every essential condition except the gallantry and endurance of our soldiers. In both cases there was created a demand for increased expenditure; there were the same great passions thrilling the Navy; there were the same panics and nightmares. Then the French Emperor was the bugbear. The third great panic prophesied by Mr. Cobden had taken place; we had a dis- tinguished sailor, a distinguished fighting man—Sir Charles Napier—taking the lead in working up the excitement and nervous apprehension. He was firmly convinced that there would be an invasion of this country; he described the march upon London, and he said in this House, "when it comes, what will become of the funds, God only knows." He even fixed the date of the invasion. Enormous sums of money were spent in useless fortifications, and in twelve years the naval and military expenditure of this country doubled. There were the same calculations in comparison between fleets. We were told in every Motion in this House—and there were several Debates in the House of Lords—that the French fleet was superior in big ships and big guns. There were the same stories of secret preparation. We were told that the French were preparing huge transports for the purpose of landing troops, and we were assured that it would be the easiest thing in the world to land 80,000 men on the South Coast to march on London. It is a very interesting story, and worth studying now. Now we know the French Emperor not merely had no designs on us, but that he was exceedingly anxious to be friendly with this country, that it was the one anxiety of his life to be on good terms with Great Britain and her Sovereign. True, there were a few irascible French colonels, but we also know now for a certainty that at no time had they the remotest chance of landing anything or any troops in this country, and that our Fleet was overwhelmingly superior. At any rate, it had the effect of driving up expenditure.

Mr. Gladstone, who believed none of these things, called special attention to the alarming growth of expenditure in 1861, almost in words repeated to-day by critics of our expenditure. I should like to quote the words he then used. He said:— If there be any danger which has recently in an especial manner beset us. I confess that …. it has seemed to me to lie, during recent years chiefly, in our proneness to constant and apparently almost boundless augmentations of expenditure, and in the consequences that are associated with them. I do not refer to this or that particular charge or scheme. I do not refer to the Estimates of the year; but I think that when in an extended retrospect we take notice of the late at which we have been advancing for a certain number of years, we must see that there has been a tendency to break down all barriers and all limits …. I do trust that the day has come when a check has began to be put to the movement in this direction. That was in 1861; Mr. Gladstone was then submitting to this House a Budget statement which provided for £70,000,000—£2 8s. 3d. per head of the population. It is now £4 6s. 3d., and I think it is very important—there is no more important function that this House can discharge than an examination of the National expenditure—to call attention to the direction in which expenditure has grown, so that criticism should be well informed and well directed.

The largest increase since then has been in armaments. I pointed out that 1861 represented the high water-mark of that date of the cost of armaments. Shortly afterwards expenditure on the Army and Navy fell by something like £2,000,000 a year. It was then £28,285,000; it is now £74,544,000, an increase of £46,000,000. It was then growing at the rate of hundreds of thousands per year; it is now growing at the rate of millions a year. Since I have had the privilege of occupying my present office expenditure on armaments has grown by £15,000,000 and I see no prospect of this very menacing growth coming to an end unless there is some fundamental change in the attitude and policy of the nations of the earth.


Or of the Government.


The expenditure on armaments differs from every other expenditure in two respects. One is, it is non-productive. The other is that the increase or diminution in armaments is not dependent upon the will of the individual Government that initiates the expenditure, or even of the House of Commons that sanctions the expenditure; it depends upon the concerted, or rather competitive, will of a number of great nations, of whom we constitute one of the most potent. Now armaments count for the largest, and I think the most sterile, increase since 1861. If the Committee will just follow the other items of expenditure, I think they will agree that they are much more full of encouragement and hope. There are larger sums spent upon objects which give a promise of strength and happiness to the nation. It is no use quoting details without examining the purpose of the expenditure. Whether an increased expenditure is an improvement or not depends, first of all, on the purpose of the expenditure and on the means.